With every great development in history, there comes a pioneer who enabled such progress to be made. Statistics from the Solicitors Regulation Authority suggest that in the UK currently, 33% of partners in law firms are now female, which is a far cry from the social climate prior to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. Rosina Harris was the first woman to be selected as a senior partner in a leading London firm, opening doors for female lawyers ever since.
Born in 1921, Harris grew up during a crucial decade for women living in Britain. There was a sense of liberation in the air, with the voting age for women being reduced in 1928 as to be in line with men’s voting rights. Unsurprisingly, she grew up with the same resilience and drive reflected through this new-found empowerment. She attended St Swithun’s School in Winchester as a child. Harris began studying Jurisprudence at St Hilda’s college in Oxford in 1941. St Hilda’s, originally an all-girls college, was known for high academic entry requirements.
Studying at University during war-time Britain was just as difficult as you’d imagine, with some of the women having to take their entrance exams underground in bomb shelters. One of Harris’ peers, Mary Welsh, wrote a reminiscence of her time at the college. Despite the anxiety surrounding the war, Welsh’s account tells a story of college spirit. Their college days were spent studying in the day, and then attending concerts at the town hall in the evening. The women at St Hilda’s college were considered to be the “best fed college in Oxford”, despite strict rationings. Harris and her peers attended a formal dinner every single Sunday, and numerous balls throughout the year. Welsh remarked that very few colleges in the area were as undisturbed as they were. Other local colleges had to give up some of their buildings for war services and government departments. Upon occasions, St Hilda’s homed evacuees and students from other local colleges during the war.
The pupils at St Hilda’s felt privileged to be able to attend the college whilst the war was waging outside of the college walls. Their professors reminded them frequently of this, and as a result, all of the women were expected to carry out ‘war jobs’ alongside their studies. These jobs ranged from sewing pyjamas for evacuee children, helping to clean the hospital bandages, and taking turns on fire watch.
During the war, some of the students were offered to study shorter degrees, lasting two years rather than the full three. However, the girls were encouraged to take a break from their studies to assist with war time duties. Harris acted upon this, joining the Air Ambulance Service until the war ended. During this time, Harris drove an ambulance in London, Southampton, and other cities carrying wounded civilians during air raids. Harris returned to St Hilda’s when the war ended.
Upon completion of her degree, Harris was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1947. Barristers were few and far after the war, with the 1951 census listing that only there were only 3235 barristers in the UK; the Bar Council confirmed that only 1907 were in practice. Shortly after being called to the bar, Harris decided that it was not the career for her, and opted to qualify as a solicitor instead.
Harris began working for Joynson-Hicks & Co in 1953 as a solicitor. In 1977, Harris became the first women to be appointed as a Senior Partner in a major London firm, following the retirement of the previous partner. David Lester, a former partner in Joynson-Hicks, wrote that it was clear that Harris was the right person to succeed the previous partner, and she had little competition on her level within the firm (The Times, 7 December 2010).
Harris decided to move the firm closer to the Royal Courts of Justice. She made special efforts to encourage aspiring young solicitors to join the firm, offering them partnerships and sponsorships. It was thought that Harris’ work was the turning point of the firm, directing it in a new commercial focus, which is still anchored in the firm’s work to this day.
During her career, Harris became known as one of the great copyright lawyers of her time, spearheading the commercial sector for women across the United Kingdom. Harris was appointed as a solicitor member of the Whitford Committee set up in 1973 thanks to her growing reputation as a solicitor with unmatched copyright knowledge. The Committee comprised of prestigious lawyers, and their recommendations were highly regarded within the copyright sector.
Rosina Harris really did it all: she acted selflessly during the war risking her life to help her country whilst simultaneously building one of the most impressive careers in women’s legal history. Harris has left behind a remarkable legacy within the copyright sector, but also on a wider scale. Rosina Harris died on September 29, 2010, aged 89.
By Mollie Sheehy, LLB Student, School of Law, University of Worcester